A stellar cast elevates the Encores Summer Stars! production of the feel-good 1955 musical.
Of course, the entire cast -- which also boasts an appropriately hard-bitten Megan Lawrence as sportswriter Gloria Thorpe, a gruff Michael Mulheren as baseball coach Benny Van Buren, an affecting P.J. Benjamin as diehard Washington Senators fan Joe Boyd, and especially the hilarious Veanne Cox and Kathy Fitzgerald as fellow fanatics Sister and Doris -- has some first-rate material to work with, even if the show itself is a bit overloaded both in book and song. (Unlike a regular Encores!, the show's original script hasn't been tampered with.)
The book by George Abbott and Douglas Wallop (based on the latter's novel) is solid stuff, cleverly telling how middle-aged Joe Boyd sells his soul to the Devil -- aka Mr. Applegate (Hayes) -- to become young superstar baseball hero Joe Hardy (Cheyenne Jackson), who is in turn tempted by slinky seductress Lola (Krakowski, sporting a blonde Marilyn Monroe wig) and struggles to stay true to loving wife Meg (Graff). When Lola fails to turn Joe's head around, and falls in love with him to boot, Applegate takes drastic measures to secure the soul he bargained for.
The score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross -- their second and last -- is chock full of memorable tunes, which sound especially fine as played by the Encores! orchestra under Rob Berman's spirited direction. (Can anyone not sing along to "Heart"? If you can't, leave before the curtain call!) As for the original Bob Fosse choreography, which has been faithfully recreated, there are many moments when one wonders if the show might work a tad better with less difficult and exacting movement. Moreover, Rando's sometimes sloppy staging doesn't always make the most of what he's been given, and the sets and costumes rarely rise above the workmanlike.
Still, the show's construction gives its four main players many chances to shine, and they each know how to take advantage of them. Krakowski has the hardest shoes to fill -- literally and figuratively -- in taking on Gwen Verdon's signature role, and you can practically sense the late, great star haunting Krakowski during "Whatever Lola Wants." (Again, having Krakowski do the tricky Fosse choreography strictly by the book was not the best choice.) Yet, Krakowski seems to visibly relax once the number is done, and the remainder of her performance is a triumph of smarts, sincerity, and sass. She's especially beguiling paired with the always remarkable John Selya in "Who's Got the Pain?" and leading the dancers and partnering with Jackson in the underappreciated "Two Lost Souls."
Interestingly, holding her own against Broadway neophyte Hayes proves to be no small undertaking. Commanding the stage instantly and using every trick in both his and the Devil's book -- plus a whole bunch of inflections and facial expressions that he learned playing Jack on TV's Will & Grace -- Hayes turns out to be a true master of comic timing, even if he plays a bit too much to the audience now and then. Oh yes, he's also an accomplished singer (albeit a tad raspy) and pianist, employing both skills handily during Applegate's big solo "Those Were the Good Old Days."
Jackson, who only briefly shows off his extraordinary physique, is perfectly cast as the square-jawed, strait-laced, slightly stiff Joe Hardy. Using a far more "legit" voice than he's shown off in Xanadu and All Shook Up, he offers a particularly moving rendition of his one solo, "A Man Doesn't Know." Equally important, he has true chemistry with both Krakowski and the absolutely invaluable and completely grounded Graff; their duet on "Near to You" is close to heartbreaking.